The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing by Mira Jacob

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Reviewed by Victoria Best

How much are we responsible for the things that happen to the people we love? This is one of the underpinning themes of Mira Jacob’s sprawling, tender-hearted and engrossing novel about an American-Indian family. And once that questions pops up it becomes embroiled in its counterpart: how are we ever to break free from our families in the necessary ways when the ties of love and guilt are so strong?

When the novel opens, the Eapen family is in freefall. Patriarch Thomas Eapen is behaving strangely, spending his nights sitting out on the porch talking to the ghosts of the lost and loved. By day a respected brain surgeon whose career has always come first, it seems he is having a crisis, acknowledging the old debts that have stacked up. His daughter, Amina, first hears about it when her somewhat controlling mother rings up and demands she come home to Alberquerque to intervene. Amina is torn, and not for the first time. Her own career as a photojournalist has stalled after a shot she took of a Native American community leader committing suicide from a bridge went viral. Unable to come to terms with the public backlash and her guilt, she has taken a job as a wedding photographer – a job she regularly risks by shooting pictures she can’t resist of bridesmaids in punch-ups and wedding guests out cold from drink. The job isn’t soothing her marriage-minded mother’s voice in her head, either. So there’s not necessarily that much holding Amina in Seattle, but does she want to become embroiled in another family drama?

The crisis in the present awakens the ghosts of crises past. The narrative takes us back in time to the late 1970s when Amina and her brother Akhil were small children on a family visit to Salem. Unable to bear his mother’s possessive meddling, Thomas refuses a job she has set up for him and breaks ties with her altogether, leaving his brother, Sunil, the unenviable task of being the sibling who must look after her and attend to her ambitions. That visit ends with a fire, a permanent migration to America and a lack of closure.

But that isn’t the only skeleton in the Eapen family closet. In the 80s, Amina’s brother Akhil seems more prone to adolescent moodswings than usual, and gradually he falls ill with a sleeping disorder. Their mother, Kamala, has no talent for judging the distance she should take from her family’s problems, and as the family draws back in response to her overreactions, the stage is set for tragedy.

This is such a convincing portrait of a family – the rows and frustrations, the nurturing and concern, the unresolved grief that nudges, unspoken, its members into doing or saying things they shouldn’t. But one thing comes out clearly from the morass of shame, anger and unconditional love: the life of a family is strewn with chances for negotiating with the lost and the dead. The irritating clinginess of our relatives is, on the other side, a restless shifting of possibilities for working things out again, and better than before.

At over 500 pages, this is a sprawling family drama that requires some readerly commitment, but I found myself looking for chances to pick the book up again, eager to watch the tangled plotlines unfold. Mira Jacobs writes with a wonderful sense of humour: one aunt is described as she ‘squeezed [Amina] round the middle hard, more a Heimlich than an actual greeting’, another has ‘a body that moved like a jogging meatball.’ And this is a narrative rich in senses and sensations, the spicy chutneys and dhals of her mother’s kitchen are as potent to Amina as the memories of Vidal Sassoon shampoo in her school hall. It’s also a sensitive and fascinating portrayal of the immigrant Indian experience in America. Amina’s family seems cloying and tight-knit at least in part because they cluster together so fiercely, cleaving to those who share an experience that can’t be properly articulated but is highly specific.

The narrative bounces back and forth in time, gradually revealing its secrets and slowly focussing in on the present day and all that remains to be resolved. Although this is basically a story about grief in its many forms, it is a cheerier, more optimistic book than other Indian-immigrant sagas that I’ve read. Think Jhumpa Lahiri and then mix her with some Courtney Sullivan, some Jane Smiley, a dash of Pat Conroy. There’s a fundamental kindness to Mira Jacob’s storytelling that makes this a very comfortable world to live in, even as the events that unfold may move you to tears. An intensely readable debut that never lost its momentum for me, and which kept me engrossed to the poignant end.

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Victoria is one of the Shiny New Books Editors.

Mira Jacob, The Sleepwalker’s Guide to Dancing (Bloomsbury, July 2014) 978-1408841143, 512 pages, hardback.

Read our BookBuzz interview with Mira here.

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